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'Tomorrow' comes today

Better Luck Tomorrow signals a new future for Asian American cinema.

By Oliver Wang

'PEOPLE LIKE YOU and me? We don't have to play by the rules. We can make our own," Better Luck Tomorrow's Daric Loo (Roger Fan), high school valedictorian, says to Ben Manibag (Parry Shen), whom he's trying to seduce into living above the law. But his words also act as an informal motto for the movie as a whole. Justin Lin's opening-night feature at the San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival represents a deliberate shift away from the established "rules" of Asian American filmmaking and potentially heralds a daring – though uncharted – era for the 30-year-old cinema.

Better Luck Tomorrow's story concerns four overachieving high school students who initially turn to petty theft as a way to alleviate the tedium of chemistry exams and college applications. Gradually, the group's taste for the illicit spirals into drugs and violence as its members grow increasingly convinced of their own immortality despite their skewed morality. The film's dark edge led to literal shouting matches when it screened at this year's Sundance Film Festival, which led pundits like the New York Times' Elvis Mitchell and über-critic Roger Ebert to vociferously defend the film's right to present controversial images.

What's at stake here isn't just a matter of post-Sept. 11, post-Columbine political sensibilities about youth and violence. Better Luck Tomorrow challenges, consciously or not, the thrust of much of the Asian American independent media-arts movement – the creation of so-called positive images, a corrective to the racist stereotypes perpetuated in Hollywood for the past century. Lin's characters are anything but ethical role models as they lie, cheat, beat, and steal their way through school, yet the film presents them as characters of such complexity that it's impossible to label them as caricatures.

Like Lin's last film, Shopping for Fangs (codirected with Quentin Lee), Better Luck Tomorrow deals in unmistakably Asian American spaces – middle-class, Los Angeles suburbs filled with strip malls and tract housing – yet refreshingly avoids obsessing over Asian American identities. It's not that the characters reject their ethnicities or that they are unaware of racial realities – one of the movie's most powerful scenes comes when the four confront a group of racist, white jocks at a house party. However, the film never becomes singularly focused on identity politics – ethnicity is only the most superficial layer to each of the characters' personalities and motives. Says Lin, "Usually when you see Asian faces on-screen – either they're tourists or kung fu masters – they're there for an 'Asian' reason. As an Asian American watching film, that's something I'd like to move away from because I think we're beyond that. I feel like, seeing Asian American faces on screen, we have an entitlement in being there. I don't think we need to overexplain to everybody why we're Asian every second of our existence."

This stands in stark contrast to other contemporary examples of Asian American cinema. The Californian, suburban backdrop of Better Luck Tomorrow is mirrored in recent movies like Gene Cajayon's Debut, Chi Moui Lo's Catfish in Black Bean Sauce, and Rod Pulido's The Flip Side, but all three are fundamentally grounded in a familiar exploration of Asian American identity that's been a part of the community's filmmaking practice since the guerrilla movie days of Curtis Choy in the 1970s and Wayne Wang's crossover hits of 1980s. This isn't to belittle that tradition – for each new generation of Asian American filmmakers and audiences, identity will always remain a central and important theme so long as they still have to contend with the oppressive weight of racist images and social discrimination.

However, Better Luck Tomorrow imagines a space where people are consciously Asian American without being self-conscious about it, thus liberating the narrative to provocatively explore other tensions besides race. Given that MTV Studios will be distributing the film – an unprecedented and unexpected show of mainstream support – Better Luck Tomorrow is poised to help transform what studios, investors, critics, scholars, and viewers have typically expected from an "Asian American film." In their capacity to serve as a harbinger of change the teenage misanthropes at the center of Better Luck Tomorrow may make for odd heroes, but the potential they represent is still something worth cheering for.

'Better Luck Tomorrow' screens as part of the San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival, Thurs/7, 7 p.m., Kabuki 8, S.F. $25. Reception with Justin Lin, 9:30 p.m., Fort Mason Center, Bldg. A, Marina at Laguna, S.F. $45 screening and reception. (415) 255-4299. For more information see box page 39. Oliver Wang was a member of the Screening and Directions in Sound Committees for the National Asian American Telecommunications Association, the parent organization of the San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival. He did not solicit or screen Better Luck Tomorrow as part of his committee responsibilities.